Spotlight: Stephen Towns Honors Undersung Black Americans With Portraits Rooted in Tradition

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What You Need to Know: Baltimore-based artist Stephen Towns is the subject of a solo show, “Stephen Towns: Glimpses of Americana,” at New York’s De Buck Gallery, that features eight paintings and five quilted works. Together, these works reflect Towns’s engagement with themes of labor, resilience, and leadership within the context of American culture and history—specifically as it pertains to African Americans and people of color. This year, Towns is also the subject of a major traveling museum show, “Stephen Towns: Declaration and Resistance,” which analyzes the concept of the American dream through the lens of Black Americans from the 18th century through today. The exhibition originated at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and opens next at the Reynolda House Museum of Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on February 17, 2023.

Why We Like It: Towns employs a broad array of media and techniques, from the expected paint on canvas to the less expected quilting and gilding—but all have canonic roots, which help reinforce the historical parallels and connections he creates. The artist’s extensive research on the work of photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris is on view in works like and (both 2021). Teenie is hailed for documenting the lives of Pittsburgh’s Black Americans from the 1930s through the early 1990s. Working from his archival photographs, Towns explained, “I had to deduce what was happening in these images from clues in the image…It often feels like a conversation between me, the photographer, and the subjects in the paintings.” By bringing the drama and importance of these people and events to life, Towns emphasizes the need to reevaluate what—and who—is considered significant within the history of the United States.

According to the Gallery: “Across this body of work, the artist draws our attention to the many hidden figures, the unsung and often exceptional African Americans whose roles helped shape the American economy. According to Towns, ‘There is a narrative that we come from kings and queens, but I probably didn’t come from a king or a queen, I probably came from a laborer that was captured and sold into slavery, and there is just as much importance in the people in the background as there is in the people on the top.’”

See works in the exhibition below.

Stephen Towns, Ona Judge Escapes (2021). Courtesy of De Buck Gallery.

Stephen Towns, (2021). Courtesy of De Buck Gallery.

Stephen Towns, Marcus Garvey (2021). Courtesy of De Buck Gallery.

Stephen Towns, (2021). Courtesy of De Buck Gallery.

Stephen Towns, Mary McLeod Bethune (2021). Courtesy of De Buck Gallery.

Stephen Towns, (2021). Courtesy of De Buck Gallery.

Stephen Towns, The Crossing Guards (2021). Courtesy of De Buck Gallery.

Stephen Towns, (2021). Courtesy of De Buck Gallery.

 

Stephen Towns, Sisterhood (2021). Courtesy of De Buck Gallery.

Stephen Towns, (2021). Courtesy of De Buck Gallery.

Stephen Towns, Brewster Hospital Nurses, Triptych (#1, #2, #3) (2021). Courtesy of De Buck Gallery.

Stephen Towns, (2021). Courtesy of De Buck Gallery.

Stephen Towns: Glimpses of Americana” is on view October 11–November 12, 2022, at De Buck Gallery, 507 West 27th Street, New York, NY 10001.

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